Summer Test Series Shows Brave Blossoms Have Work to Do Ahead of 2023

Japanese rugby fans would have been delighted to see the Brave Blossoms back in action on home turf this summer, with a solid test match series against Uruguay and France as part of the Lipovitan D Challenge Cup 2022. With Japan going into the series ranked 10th in the world and playing the then 19th ranked South Americans and the top-three ranked, and grand slam winning, 2022 Six Nations Champions, the series was always going to present two very different levels of opposition for the Brave Blossoms.

Prior to the four test matches, an Emerging Blossoms team, drawn from the National Development Squad (NDS) played the Tonga Samurai XV in the Japan Rugby Charity Match 2022, part of fundraising efforts across Japanese rugby for the people of Tonga following the volcanic eruption and tsunami earlier in the year. The match at Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium in Tokyo saw the Emerging Blossoms, comprising 14 uncapped players, comfortably beat the Tongan invitational side 31 – 12. The match was an important opportunity to provide NDS players with a tough, physical contest, close to the intensity of test match rugby.

The NDS was set up as a second national squad in the leadup to next year’s Rugby World Cup to help build depth across Japanese rugby. “The pandemic set us back quite a bit, but we’re now moving in the right direction. Having the NDS has been hugely important for building depth and keeping our best League One players focused on their rugby and in contention for a call up to the national team,” commented Brave Blossoms Head Coach, Jamie Joseph.

Following the Emerging Blossom’s match, the four test match Lipovitan D Challenge Cup 2022 series saw the Japan National Team play Uruguay at Chichibunomiya in Tokyo and Mikuni World Stadium in Kitakyushyu, winning both matches comfortably 34-15 and 43-7 respectively. The Brave Blossoms then faced a far sterner test when they played France at Toyota Stadium in Aichi and in their final test, at the National Stadium in Tokyo.

In the first match, Japan let in a soft try in the opening two minutes to go seven points down before the match had even started. The Brave Blossoms fought back through a solid first half performance, going into the half-time break drawn at 13 points apiece. The tide however turned in the second half with the French dialling up the pressure in the hot and humid conditions, running out eventual winners 42-23.

The second test in Tokyo proved to be far closer affair with a much improved Brave Blossoms side unlucky not to record their first victory over Les Bleus in the 12th meeting between the two sides. Japan were leading 15-13 with 10 minutes on the clock when France scored a converted try to go ahead 15-20. With five minutes to play, replacement backrow Tevita Tatafu sent the stadium into delirium when off the back of a five-meter attacking lineout, he burst through the French defence to touch down over the try-line. However, it was not to be Japan’s day. The TMO ruled the ball was incorrectly grounded, disallowing the try and seeing France hold on to win 15-20.

Commenting after the match, Jamie Joseph said, “As a team, we’re really disappointed by today’s result. We felt we put ourselves in a position to win the match, so we’re gutted to have fallen short.  It’s a performance from which we will learn a lot. We had a few young players out there, including a young nine and ten who did very well. This experience is going to hold us in good stead going forward, however when the players look back on this game, they will realise it was one we let go.”

While clearly disappointed in losing their final test, the Brave Blossoms can take a number of positives out of the series. They showed their ability to score well structured, attacking tries and, with the exception of the second half in Toyota, were able to compete against a big, physical, and hard running French side. However, the most encouraging aspect of the summer series was the introduction of new players into the national team set up.

“The series gave us a great opportunity to really grow our depth, with 16 guys earning their first caps across the four tests. In addition to our established leaders, we now have a core of exciting young players with less than ten caps. By the time we get to the World Cup, they will have played a lot more games, gained more experience, built their confidence, and established themselves in the team,” continued Joseph.

“Nothing comes close to replicating the intensity of test match rugby, so to have guys exposed to that pressure and intensity is really positive. We were able to bring through two young playmakers in Yamasawa and Lee, giving them both valuable game time. They showed great leadership and we’re starting to see strong combinations between our young stand-offs and scrum-halves. We’re also developing depth across the forwards with a good stock of young locks and back-rowers coming into the frame.”

When asked what aspects needed attention ahead of the Autumn tour, Joseph responded, “We have to improve our discipline and reduce the penalties we concede. Against top tier nations, any penalty conceded within our own half is as good as giving away three points or worse. Our style of rugby means that against these big, physical teams, we must play smart and fight hard for every point. We cannot afford to give away points through ill-discipline and expect to win the big matches.”

“The four-year World Cup cycle is like climbing a mountain. We still have a long way to go and how we prepare over the next 14 months will dictate if we’re to reach the summit. There is great belief and commitment among the team and the guys are enjoying the journey,” continued Joseph.

The Brave Blossoms will next assemble ahead of their autumn tour to Europe where they will face England at Twickenham on November 12 and France in Toulouse on November 20.